"I see a way to have no tax increase. I see a way to have no layoffs and no reduction in services. I don't know how I see that, but I see that."
That verbatim snatch was the de facto campaign speech on Monday of newly elected Shelby County Commission chairman James Harvey, who made the statement in one of the typically rambling speeches he makes on issues of the day. In this case, the question was whether or not to support the $4.38 tax rate arrived at by county mayor Mark Luttrell to balance out the dramatically enlarged needs of the newly merged city/county school system and the other basic needs of a community where declining property value assessments are about to cause a drastic drop in revenues.
As Luttrell was at pains to remind members of the commission on Monday, he is a conservative Republican who made his pre-mayoral reputation as a budget-pruning sheriff and who had been "compelled" by current realities to propose a tax rate that was just barely enough to keep county government functioning. He made a special effort to reach his fellow Republicans, who, with the exception of Mike Ritz, ended up rejecting his tax-rate proposal. It was the same proposal that the commission had initially approved weeks ago, when it approved Luttrell's budget, the same budget for which, as of July 1st, the county has been disbursing funds on the basis of the $4.38 tax rate.
The same set of Republicans voted against both budget and tax rate on first and second readings, so it was no surprise to see them vote no again on Monday, though some of their reasoning had turned Alice in Wonderland bizarre.
At one point GOP commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Heidi Shafer made a formal motion to keep the county's property tax rate at $4.02, the same rate as last year, when property assessments were notably higher. The state of Tennessee calculates something called a "certified tax rate," which is the bare-bones figure a given local jurisdiction must employ to continue its existing level of revenues. For Shelby County, the figure was $4.32 — a mere 6 cents lower than Luttrell's request. So what Bunker and Shafer were proposing was, in effect, a slashing of county funding of almost $60 million, requiring something like 800 to 1,000 county jobs.
It wasn't just the Republicans who did the damage on Monday. It was three Democratic defectors who finished things off: Justin Ford, who offered no explanation for his apostasy; Sidney Chism, who has allowed himself to be cowed by conflict-of-interest accusations from Republican Terry Roland and has recused himself on all tax-rate matters of late; and Harvey. Not even he could imagine how to deliver on the giddy promise quoted in the first paragraph above. But such rhetoric was enough finally to earn him a coalition of tax-rate opponents and to break a stalemated race for the chairmanship.
"A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter. Which luckily I am!" Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter said that. Shelby County government would appear to be his kind of place.